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Old woodcarving of Sagittarius - archer centaur

Sagittarius Mythology

Other than Virgo, the Sagittarius myth is probably the most commonly misinterpreted of all of the constellation myths.

Most interpretations conclude that the mythology of Sagittarius refers to the centaur Chiron, who was accidentally shot by Hercules (Greek mythology) with a poison arrow. This story does indeed refer to a constellation myth, but it’s actually the myth behind the constellation Centaurus, not Sagittarius.

In Greek mythology, Sagittarius represents a centaur, a half-human, half-horse creature with the torso of a man and the body and four legs of a horse. The centaur is depicted as aiming an arrow toward the heart of the neighbouring constellation Scorpio, represented by the red supergiant star Antares. Sometimes Sagittarius is wrongly identified as the centaur Chiron, represented by the constellation Centaurus.

Sagittarius constellation has its roots in Sumerian mythology. Eratosthenes associated it with Crotus, a mythical creature with two feet and a satyr’s tail, who was the nurse to the nine Muses, daughters of Zeus.

Eratosthenes argued that the constellation really represented a satyr and not a centaur. According to the Roman author Hyginus, Crotus was the son of Pan and the archer the constellation was named after. Crotus invented archery and lived on Mount Helicon. Because he was close to the Muses, they were the ones who asked Zeus to place him in the sky. Satyrs have human heads and torsos with goat legs (and sometimes horns).

Crotus, much like Chiron, was a skilled musician and hunter. He even invented the bow, according to Greek mythology.

It’s easy to see why the myths behind Centaurus and Sagittarius often get confused. Crotus and Chiron share a lot in common. Both centaurs and satyrs were well known to be wild, rowdy, lustful creatures that had little respect for authority and proper manners. Crotus and Chiron were both exceptions to their races, being instead gifted in the arts and sciences and were knowledgeable and polite to humans. They both were known to hunt with a bow and arrow (though this is a bit misleading as centaurs did not traditionally use a bow and arrow. Satyrs did.) They also look a lot alike. They have the head and torso of a man, but the bottom half of a hoofed beast. Satyrs, however, have two legs while centaurs have four.

Why Chiron gets credit as the figure in Sagittarius mythology is a bit of a mystery. Most likely it comes from different cultural interpretations of the constellations. One could easily interpret the shape as that of a half-man/half-horse instead of a half-man/half-goat. It’s just a matter of which stars you think go with which other ones.

In Babylonian mythology, Sagittarius is associated with the centaur-like god Nergal, and depicted with two heads – one human and one panther – and also wings, and the stinger of a scorpion positioned above a horse’s tail.

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